a work in progress from Clearing Skies Press
1963 (part one)
Summer so long ago and far away. Yet the silence of the heat still sits heavy in time. The weight of it ever dense and pooled without current in your mind.
Like remembering a dream, I remember it was very dry and the red clay dust lay powdery on the leaves of the corn and the air felt thick.
Across the baked tractor path in back of Aunt Mattie's house, her cornfield stretched for three acres or more to the north along a gravel road which turned toward Pisgah and became the highway.
It was a small farm, though it seemed much larger then, a trim place and well kept, and it was all my Great Aunt Mattie could do to tend it. Her older sister, Savannah, lived there too but she wasn't much help keeping up the house or the farm.
One day mom had said Aunt Savannah's health was failing and we might better pay a visit to her and Mattie's home in Alabama. She wanted to make sure Granny got to see both her sisters before summer was out. So we piled in the blue & white Ford Ranch Wagon and headed north from St. Petersburg. My mother, Granny, cousin Nancy, and me, Josh. Legal name, Joshua Allen Bailey.
Born in Sand Mountain, christened Thomasina, my mother often talked of the place she had left as a young girl, moving to Florida to sharecrop the strawberry fields near Plant City. I remember Tommy telling me about it ever since I was little. Even now, for a twelve-year-old boy who had never been north of Atlanta nor west of Tallahassee, Sand Mountain seemed like an exotic destination.
As far as I could tell, the place was inhabited by colorful relatives with strange sounding names who lived on farms outside of towns with even stranger sounding names.
I remember we stopped at some musty auto court in south Georgia and Nancy and I had a difficult time trying to sleep on our pallet on the floor because Granny had to have the light on all night. She said she had to have the light because otherwise she would "suffocate." I never could figure out how the light helped her "breathe" but I knew she was anxious about seeing her sister Savannah so I shut up and tried to sleep. Sometimes old people get nervous about certain things, I decided, like seeing someone you really care about after a long absence.
I reasoned that her nerves also had something to do with why Granny had to dip snuff and carry her snuff jar around with her wherever she went. She dipped Railroad snuff from a little blue and white tin. The dipping part was okay, but the spitting part made me queasy and the Mason jar she used to spit in smelled terrible in the front seat of the car.
That evening we sat on the back porch and watched the fireflies begin their nightly show. Just after the sun went down you could see the first faint blink in the graying light. You could see more dots of light as the air cooled in misty layers over the wide backyard. Aunt Mattie's yard was more like a garden than a yard. It was lush and full of life with apple trees, huge, looping sunflowers, winding grape arbors, elegant roses and an oasis of ferns and honeysuckle.
I had seen one or two fireflies before but never a spectacle like this. Florida just didn't have very many fireflies, and there were no apple trees at all for them to fly around.
Aunt Savannah brought out two Mason jars so Tommy could poke holes in the lids for Nancy and me. We ran barefoot around the dewy grass filling our jars and pretending they were twinkling lanterns to put on the porch rail. Tommy showed us how to swoop the jar over the firefly and close the lid between captures. Granny and my two aunts rocked on the porch, humming, and Tommy leaned against a post, watching us.
We caught a bunch of those fireflies. After we put the jars up on the railing and watched them glow for a while, Tommy made us let them go.
"Folks around here get to bed early," she said.
I thought about how late Tommy let me stay up at The Little Skipper, the bayside tavern she and my stepfather ran back in St. Petersburg. I know I had seen midnight come and go more than once playing pinball with the regulars in the front room.
"This place is different than home," she said, tucking me in. "Do you know some people around here don't even have indoor plumbing yet? Like your Uncle Hardy. He and Aunt Eunice have a hand pump bolted on the side of their kitchen sink."
"And they go the bathroom outside, in an outhouse, don't they?"
"That's right," Tommy said, kissing me on the forehead. "But now they have a pump right in the kitchen. When I was little and we lived next door we all had to haul water up from the spring in the back of the pasture."
"Jeez," I murmured, grasping briefly a picture of my mother as a little girl carrying buckets from a shady creek bypassing cows and out buildings all the way up to the back porch of a sprawling farmhouse. Then I fell into a dreamless sleep.
As we got closer to our destination the idea of driving up onto the Mountain fascinated me. I had studied enough geography in the seventh grade to know generally where Sand Mountain was, but I didn't remember reading about Alabama being a state with a whole lot of mountains.
"Mom, Sand Mountain isn't really a big mountain is it?" I asked from the back seat.
"No, Josh, it's fairly small as far as mountains go, but it's the biggest one around here. And it's pretty unique."
"Why do they call it Sand Mountain?"
Cousin Nancy blurted, "Cause it's sandy that's why!"
"Hush," I said. "You don't know." Nancy was only nine, after all. "What do you mean, unique?"
"Well, it's kind of isolated," Tommy said. "These days, the old people who are there have been there a long time--not like Florida where we live. And all of the young people on the Mountain try to leave when they grow up."
"Where do they go?"
"Anywhere. Places like Fort Payne and Huntsville."
Behind the wheel, Tommy wore a white terry cloth hat with a long visor and a strap in the back. She wore this hat and sunglasses with broad red frames like a race car driver might wear a helmet and goggles. My mom slipped on the sunglasses whenever she drove but she only wore the hat when we took long trips. I thought the hat was funny looking but I liked the sunglasses.
The farther we drove up the mountain, the hotter it got. Granny was too hot to dip snuff, horses and cows we passed clustered under shade trees and the temperature gauge on the Ford displayed a rising red needle. Tommy knew enough to slow the Ford and turn the heater on to help cool the motor. The heater made it even hotter inside the car, but we coasted on the downhills, the engine temperature dropped, and we made it to Aunt Mattie's by late afternoon.
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